Brazilian Cup finely balanced after Flamengo, Corinthians draw first leg

The first leg of the Brazilian Cup final was a game of cat and mouse in which no one ended up with the cheese. Sao Paulo Corinthians and Rio Flamengo drew 0-0 on Wednesday leaving everything to be won in next week’s second leg.

As fate would have it, this is the first time these two giants, the nation’s most popular clubs, have met in a grand final.

Over 33 years ago they met in an early Community Shield equivalent, but it was a low-key occasion with limited appeal. Fewer than 3,000 paid to watch it.

This time, all tickets for both stages could have been sold out 10 times. It’s a big occasion, which means that in addition to a host of ability, there was also tension and caution.

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Caution was inevitable from Corinthians, even though they were home in the first leg; Flamengo is the clear favourite. Two months ago, when the teams met in the quarter-finals of the Copa Libertadores, the South American Champions League, Flamengo won both home and away.

The gap between the camps has probably since closed, but still the Corinthians had every reason to be wary. Given time and space, Flamengo can open up the field with wide diagonal passes as he charges forward with his irresistible front four. Flamengo would have most of the ball but Corinthians would ensure their space is kept to a minimum.

This, of course, is nothing new for Flamengo. Over the past few years, their attacking brilliance has inevitably provoked a backlash, with teams seeking cover against them. Having to break deep defenses is a weekly challenge. At best, they can fizzle out quick pass exchanges in tight spaces around the edge of the area and work their way through.

They almost succeeded this time, slipping centre-forward Pedro against the giant figure of Corinthians keeper Cassio. But Pedro couldn’t make the angle, and the shot went wide of the near post. Cassio had to be quick on his feet when Pedro slid Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa past the defensive line. And in the second half he faced a mini bombardment, blocking a ferocious volley from Gabigol and diving left to fend off a cross shot from Everton Ribeiro. In between, he could only watch a long-range shot from David Luiz bounce off his crossbar.

The Corinthians, however, were not passive. Their best method of defense against Flamengo was to have the ball and take advantage of their own periods of possession. At times, they were able to open up space for playmaker Renato Augusto and cause unease in Flamengo’s ranks. But the two moments of maximum discomfort came on the counterattack. In the first half, Flamengo centre-back Leo Pereira misjudged the volley of the ball and missed a header on a routine clearance. Striker Yuri Alberto was in, heading for goal, cutting inside David Luiz and preparing to pull the trigger – when defensive midfielder Thiago Maia managed to come back in time to put in a life-saving tackle . And just as the game ended, after a vexing break for partial floodlight failure, Pereira was taken out of position high up the pitch and Alberto was on the charge again, this time to fire a shot that took a slight deflection before goalkeeper Santos dove right to make the save and ensure the first leg ended scoreless.

In front of a massive crowd in the Maracana next Wednesday, Flamengo will certainly expect the job to be done. Corinthians, however, don’t seem uncomfortable with underdog status, and Portugal manager Vitor Pereira will strategize for the occasion. He will lament that his team met Flamengo in three big knockout games and had chances each time but still failed to score. And he will welcome the absence next week of Joao Gomes, Flamengo’s midfield powerhouse, who will miss the second leg through suspension. Flamengo are more vulnerable without him, and will lack lung power when the cat-and-mouse game resumes next Wednesday with the big cheese on the line.

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